Over two days, we tried to traverse the length and breadth of Kurunegala. We could not, even after covering more than 600 kilometres. Then again, it is impossible to ascertain with just one trip, and a randomly organised trip at that, the full worth of a place, especially one as culturally fertile as this. For while much of the region is arid and susceptible to the shifts of droughts and floods, it remains fertile in the memory of the people who inhabit it. Fertile even to those who chance across it and fertile even to those who choose to ignore it.
We are hesitant to associate a people with the place they reside in, because we happen to be lotus-eaters. What possibly can we know of a region that has housed an entire civilisation, and has borne witness to a renaissance not just in our history, but in our literature and economy as well? Precious little, as it turns out.
I have always felt that travel bloggers, in their quest to capture the exotic, frequent those sites which have already been covered, hundreds if not thousands of times, by other bloggers. I remember once making the mistake of boarding myself at the Rest House in Matara. A friend of mine, a close friend, later advised me to go inland, to Deniyaya, Telijjawila, and Akuressa, for it is there, in those places, that the real Matara unveils itself to the outsider. You do not come across many rest houses in Deniyaya and Telijjawila and Akuressa. You come across houses. And real human beings. That curious anomaly called tourism has not visited these places. At least, not yet. The same can be said of Kurunegala, at least the Kurunegala I chose to visit.
For a long time, Kurunegala to me was a place occupied with history. It was a fortress, a never ending assortment of rocks and mountains which provided the perfect cover for a civilisation that was facing the first few onslaughts of destructive colonialism. The Dambadeniya Era was one of tentative ties with the outside world and careful diplomacy, in particular because the country had been all but completely enslaved. It marked the last recorded time that a kingdom, which had been abandoned before, was resorted to again: Polonnaruwa, under Parakramabahu III. But as Professor K. M. de Silva argues, this was less an accomplishment than a necessity, since Polonnaruwa provided the base for Parakramabahu to maintain cordial relations with the Pandyans and to bring back the sacred tooth relic to Sri Lanka. From Parakramabahu III, the mantle of power passed to Dambadeniya once again. This time, to Kurunegala.
It was this history and the culture it entailed that first fascinated me, I distinctly remember. The shift from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa was necessary as much for strategic reasons (threats from South India) as for economic reasons: Gokanna, which was what they called the Trincomalee Harbour, was closer to the latter region, and with the expansion of trade with the West, being near it made good sense.
From AD 1232, the capital began to move from Polonnaruwa, this time further down to the south west. Again, this was motivated by both military and economic concerns, since trade had by then shifted from India and the West to China, the world’s biggest single economy, which on an unprecedented scale was opening itself up to the world outside. Though it would take the Ming Dynasty, a century or so later, to give effect to this process (and, in one of the many maritime voyages it “sponsored”, even “invade” our country), around the 13th century China was becoming a more powerful “arrival in the trade sector” (as Kamalika Pieris put it). With Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Sinhalese civilisation pioneered a hydraulic civilisation never before seen on such a scale elsewhere. The bisokotuwa, an invention of the third century BC (the founders of which haven’t been identified by historians) laid the foundation of a culture that thrived on a sleek relationship between the wewa and neighbouring tanks. Both these kingdoms had been able to withstand the pressures attendant on such places: “intermittent streams, gross yearly variations, undulating relief, high evaporation some eight degrees from the Equator, poor groundwater resources, indifferent soils, and marked seasonal concentration of rainfall with its risk of disastrous floods”, among others. The dry zone had to do with rainfall restricted to the period from September to January, which was less reliable than in the wet zone. The marvels of engineering and water conservation constructed during this period, then, would be modified and adapted to meet the needs of the subsequent kingdoms. Dambadeniya was the first testing ground for how well those marvels could withstand the shift to a new centre of power. All in all, it passed the test rather well: not only did it find refuge in the many fortresses which shielded the kingdom, it also fermented a civilisational renaissance. For the Dambadeniya Era was the bedrock of a revolution in literature. It gave birth to the kavsilumina, the sandesha kavya, and the Dalada Siritha. It also gave birth to the Muvadevdavata and the Saddharma Ratnavaliya.
Curiously enough, while being shielded from South India, the writers of this era, to compensate perhaps for the infiltration of South India, imbibed the traditions of North India: the heavily ornate, “alankarist” (sophist) style of Sanskrit poets. By the time of the 15th century, the process of cultural assimilation (or imitation?) this necessitated was virtually complete; it would be continued, with minor modifications, in the 20th century with the Colombo poets. At the same time though, it did not abandon the people’s quest for a genuine national literature: it was during these centuries that the Sidat Sangarava was written and, according to Wilheim Geiger, the shift towards Modern Sinhalese transpired. Dambadeniya, and Kurunegala among its kingdoms, was hence a place of contradiction as well.
Still, it was not always fortunate for Sinhalese civilisation to have moved so abruptly to a new region. The turbulence which marked the first few outside conquests, even those of the Cholas, had been combated and resolved. But the 13th century saw a very different wave of conquests, more merciless since it compelled the abandonment of the heartland of ancient Sri Lanka.
The process of resettlement this compelled was made more difficult by other factors, prime among them malaria, which “added a further and insuperable obstacle to the reoccupation of the once productive areas of the dry zone.” Not surprisingly, by the mid-14th century, with the rise of the Aryachakravarti Kingdom in Jaffna (the most powerful in the island), the monuments to our irrigation system, the tanks and the reservoirs, were fast deteriorating, physically and metaphorically. Deterioration on such a scale could not be halted or paused, and it went hand in hand with the decline of irrigation cultures in South East Asia: in Cambodia, northern Thailand, and Burma.
Our people were always resilient in the face of outside threats. They faced the biggest series of invasions from the 10th to the 13th centuries, which would have been enough to put down any civilisation. But Martin Wickramasinghe once wrote that this culture of resilience, which survived the Cholas, the Pandyans, and the Pallavas, was probably rooted in the Buddhist ethos the people readily imbibed. Was it because the court poets, the prose writers, and even the kings of these centuries began to abandon that ethos which had run through the literature of the preceding centuries that, during and after the Dambadeniya Era, a period of decrepitude got rooted in the country?
Dambadeniya, and with it Kurunegala, was a kingdom that flourished in the realms of the sacred and the worldly. It was the bedrock of modern Sinhalese, the language and the literature. It was the classical era for scholars and writers. And yet, it was also a place of contradictions, of a Buddhist civilisation coexisting with a secular culture. It was this history that I sought to explore with the two days I spent in Kurunegala.
To be sure, by itself, Kurunegala does not span the entirety of Dambadeniya, which is why I explored Yapahuwa and Panduwasnuwara as well. Still, Kurunegala is special to me, because of the many glimpses it affords: the people, the sights, and the sounds. These, more than the cultural sites, may yield something of value with which we can look at the residents more wholesomely. Those two days I spent, therefore, seem to have been aptly spent. In the coming weeks, I intend to chart them for you.